When NASCAR drivers pull into the pit, a few friends or relatives might be there watching as the crew flies into action to get the vehicle back on the track. In Todd Peck’s pit, there’s often an excited child with juvenile arthritis (JA) among those cheering him on. Wherever he’s racing, he invites a JA family or others affected by arthritis for a behind-the-scenes NASCAR experience.
“We try to reach out and involve people with arthritis,” says Todd, who has worked extensively with the Arthritis Foundation to advocate for kids with arthritis and raise awareness of the disease. His guests get to watch the action in the garage, join the crew on “pit road” for the national anthem, listen in on the communications radio while Todd’s racing and meet some of NASCAR’s stars.
Todd, who turned 30 in January, knows what it’s like to be young and have arthritis. He was diagnosed when he was 15, and now he is committed to helping raise awareness and reaching out to others dealing with some of the same challenges.
A Surprising Diagnosis
Todd was an active teen, playing lacrosse and baseball and “crashing” his skateboard. So when he told his parents, both physicians, that his back hurt and his feet were swollen, they weren’t surprised. He had, after all, recently jumped off a roof – again. “They dismissed it as typical teenage boy stuff,” says Todd.
But Todd started avoiding the sports he loved, and one morning, he couldn’t get out of bed. The pain, he says, “took my breath away.” His dad examined him and called a family friend – rheumatologist Christine A. Phillips, MD. She ordered several tests, and a few days later she had the answer: Todd had seronegative spondyloarthropathy, an inflammatory form of arthritis affecting his spine, and enthesitis causing severe toe swelling. “I didn’t know anything about arthritis except it’s what my grandparents had,” says Todd. “I thought the rest of my life was going to be shuffleboard and bingo.”
Getting on Track
Although his symptoms eventually eased, thanks to anti-inflammatory medications, he never went back to his old sports. He had found a new passion. His father bought Todd a go-cart, which the pair assembled. The choice wasn’t out of the blue; Todd grew up in a racing family. His grandfather had built racecars, his dad had raced before entering medical school, and when Todd was growing up, he spent summers visiting tracks to watch his uncle, a professional NASCAR driver, race.
Todd started driving the go-cart on a nearby 8-mile dirt track at up to 60 miles per hour. Before long, he had graduated to a three-quarter-scale NASCAR-style car and entered a nearby race. Two weeks before it, his rheumatologist showed him how to use a stick shift, practicing on a neighbor’s long driveway. Then off he went to the 50-lap race (even before he had his driver’s license), hitting speeds over 100 mph and finishing in fourth place. He raced during high school and college, turned pro in 2009, and in 2011 started competing in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, a division in which the vehicles are built like a car but look like a truck.
In the Driver’s Seat
Racing is ideal for someone with arthritis, Todd says. “It’s a very physical sport but you are not running, jumping, twisting or contorting your body,” he explains. The seats are custom-built to fit the driver, and the harness and multiple seatbelts lock him in place, so when Todd drives, only his extremities move. “The more stabilized I am, the more it helps me,” he says.
Still, Todd has had his share of injuries, including concussions, a broken hand, foot and collarbone, and carbon monoxide poisoning. “If you are racing for any amount of time and don’t wreck, it means you weren’t going fast enough,” he says.
Todd can’t completely outpace his arthritis, though. “There are good days and bad days,” he says. Because he spends hours in the vehicle on race day, Todd feels stiff and achy the day after. But he feels lucky that he’s able to manage the pain and stiffness with prescription-strength ibuprofen and a healthy lifestyle.
Dr. Phillips had concerns when Todd took up racing, she says. However, after she sent him for physical therapy, he started exercising religiously, which helps maintain his health and control his symptoms.
“He’s conscientious of exercising and not becoming overweight,” she says. “He’s thoroughly dedicated to exercise.”
He does stretching and strengthening exercises, and yoga two to three times per week under the guidance of a trainer. “That keeps everything moving the way it should be,” he says. He also eats healthfully, favoring “all the produce I can get my hands on.”
Todd has no plans to slow down. He’s already racing the same tracks as NASCAR’s biggest names, and the sport’s pinnacle, the Sprint Cup series, is “right on the horizon,” he says.
“I absolutely love what I do,” he says. “When I quit racing, it will be because I want to, not because the arthritis made me.”